The Current Moment in Ireland: Interview with Andrew Flood

Black Rose / Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation member Brendan Maslauskas Dunn sat down with Irish anarchist, organizer and writer Andrew Flood on February 20, 2020. Flood is a member of the Irish anarcho-communist organization Workers Solidarity Movement. Many of his essays and articles can be found here. The interview took place exactly where you might find an Irish and American anarchist on a brisk winter night: in a working class pub near the River Liffey in Dublin. 

Brendan Maslauskas Dunn (BMD): The first question I want to ask is if you could discuss the most recent election in Ireland. There’s a big surge in support for the political party Sinn Fein. Could you speak more generally about that?

Andrew Flood (AF): The interesting thing that happened is that since independence, really, we’ve had a two-party system but it was two center right parties – Fianna Fáild and Fine Gael – and basically every government has been one of those two parties. They swap over now and again but their policies, certainly since the 1930’s, have been pretty much identical. With this election, what happened instead was the Sinn Fein vote increased massively over both previous elections and what was previously expected. 

They pretty much got exactly the same vote as those other two parties; we now have this three party system. And there is a lot of excitement about that because people feel it’s breaking the mold of Irish politics. I guess it would be a bit like if there was a third party in the US that suddenly emerged and got the same votes as the Democrats and the Republicans or something. And in some ways there is going to be a significant beak if they end up forming a government. That’s being negotiated against at the moment, particularly in relation to housing because that’s the really big thing that’s impacting a lot of people in Ireland. 

The previous government, basically after the financial crisis, they basically stopped building public housing altogether – it used to be that they would maybe build about 5,000 houses a year. We’ve had ten years of them not doing that so we have a deficit of about 50,000 houses in a small country of four and a half to five million – which means rents have gone through the roof. I was saying earlier in Dublin if you have a shared house and if you have a room in that shared house you’re paying about 800 Euros a month in rent and the median wage that half the people are above or below is about 30,000 (Euros). When you take taxes into account that means maybe two thirds of your income is going on rent. This is obviously completely unsustainable for people. And there’s no security with rent either; you know you don’t have the protections you’d have elsewhere in Europe. 

In fact, even people in the United States have some of those. So the real burning issue is that Sinn Fein is promising to build 100,000 houses, which is a very ambitious target, but they could probably do some of that. So those particularly younger voters, but in fact right across the spectrum of every age group below sixty five, in fact have this massive shift to Sinn Fein. At the moment we’re waiting to see as they try and negotiate what the government would actually look like. I think it’s quite likely Sinn Fein may not go into government or there might be a coalition with Finn Fol and the Green Party.  

BMD: It sounds like you’re speaking a little bit about the shortcomings of party politics and elections, and when center-left or left-wing parties or individuals come to power.  Now what would you say to people in the U.S. now in terms of the Bernie Sanders campaign.  He has had quite a bit of support across the U.S. Maybe there is some comparison there?

AF: Well I guess looking at the Irish context, you have what the parties promise going into elections, this 100,000 house figure and that’s been costed, it’s a relatively cheap cost to actually build the houses which probably isn’t realistic. Then you have the problem when you actually get into power and there isn’t the money to actually do that unless you do something like you tax corporations very heavily and you really go after the wealthiest portion of the population. 

Now Ireland has an extremely globalized economy. With Singapore we constantly go back and forth with who is number one. What that basically means is that you’re very vulnerable to capital flight. Basically all of that money gets taken out of the country and all of those promises you were able to give fall back down again. Obviously the States is quite different in terms of the economy but it is still the case where you get this thing in which people don’t like particular policies. They can pull the money out of particular areas. 

The American example, because I am familiar with it, is of course what they did to Detroit. In the mid-seventies when the union people were organized and they were getting good wages, and they were getting decent housing, so the rich moved all the factories to the South. Detroit ended up being completely devastated by that. You have the same sort of problems moving capital around and things. And you have a whole series of mechanisms tham mean even if you have a really well intentioned government, you know who is not just doing a scam in order to get your votes – they honestly mean it – it’s actually really hard to implement those sorts of policies without actually challenging capitalist rule itself. I think that if Sinn Fein actually does get into government, and it should be possible, to think that that’s probably what we’ll be looking at. The money in order to do those sorts of projects that they are talking about will just evaporate. It will either leave the country or just the credible threat of it doing so will cause them to back down.

BMD: It sounds like you’re talking a lot about power and concepts of power, in terms of the power that capital has versus the power the state has and which controls the other. Can you talk a little about a different kind of power, like building power from below; from workers, students, poor people and social movements? What’s the alternative?

AF: Right, well I mean if you think that the housing thing as a concrete example I’m working off here… Houses are built by workers and sold to other workers or rented to other workers. In the economic system we have now all of that happens through people who have a claim of ownership of the land, of the construction materials, of the equipment you need to build houses. There’s this layer that basically takes all the profits out of that. You can certainly imagine a situation where instead of that happening, the people who build the houses anyway for the people that need to live in them and that’s the sort of layer that can suck the profit off. And it doesn’t exist. 

Now the challenge in a country like Ireland is how you manage to do that in a way where you avoid those problems of capital flight that I’ve talked about. And I think we are in a particularly difficult kind of situation because we are such a small economy. Somewhere like the States I think you’re looking at a very different situation because that couldn’t happen to the same extent, you couldn’t all be simply sucked out of the country. It would be much easier to imagine a rearrangement of the economy where the mass of American workers take control of these things, you get decisions being made at the community levels, and workplace levels, and production gets restructured. And it’s also very relevant of course to the climate crisis, the level of change we need to make to have the economy work in order to do that, which seems very unlikely to happen underneath the capitalist system that prioritizes profit.

BMD: So the system you propose instead?  

AF: Well I’m an anarchist, which is basically saying that you are for a system where you get rid of the hierarchies of decision-making power. So you don’t have people that have the power to make decisions for and over others simply because they’ve been put there through some mechanism. Decisions are made by either people coming together directly themselves or by mandating delegates to meet up for really large scale decisions and make those decisions through people according to the way that they have been mandated.

BMD: When we talk about the global system of austerity under capitalism that so many people are living under these days, you find more so during these times that the far right and fascists become more ascendant, become more powerful. We could talk about Ireland, and Europe, the US and India and so many places around the world right now. What does that look like in Ireland and how have you and other anarchists and other activists organized against the fascist and far-right threat?  

AF: There hasn’t been much of a traditional fascist movement in Ireland. Back to the 1930’s we had a thing called the blue shirts then, but since then it’s been pretty weak. What we’ve seen in the last couple of years is basically fascism organizing through youtube channels, getting critical masses of people together. And they were also people talking about the housing crisis because this is a thing that has been affecting lots of people. What they were essentially saying is though instead of blaming the government for the fact that they were not building housing for a decade, they are blaming the fact that there are migrants who also need housing and saying, “Well the solution isn’t to build public housing but it’s to make sure that there is a very tiny amount that’s built that is allocated to Irish people before it’s allocated to migrants.” It’s actually kind of a ludicrous argument because of the tiny level of building that’s going on. But it does appeal to a kind of minority of racists. 

They’ve done very badly electoraly, like getting only half a percent or whatever in recent elections. But they are trying to locally organize pickets of building sites and that sort of activity. There’s been two factors to most of the recent antifascist organizing. Firstly it’s mobilizing to outnumber them so when they call a demonstration, much more come out on the other side. And that’s been a very broad section of Irish society, everything from kind of left and republican groups to quite mainstream charity organizations coming out. And then the second facet of that has been to mobilize and confront them and make them feel very uncomfortable when they try and meet up on the streets. It’s been very successful as well. Between that and their electoral failure they’ve kind of fallen apart recently. They’ve taken to fighting with each other and drawing that out a lot online. So hopefully that progress can be kept moving. 

BMD: Are there things that activists and people organizing in the US can learn from some of the successes and wins that activists and the Left have had in Ireland in recent years?

AF: That’s a really tough one actually. [laugher]

BMD: That’s a tough one for people in the US too!

AF: I think the scales are so different that it can be hard to translate from one political context to another. I’m always careful about being glib about that. I think a lot of the successful rules for organizing are pretty universal: it’s based on conversations with people, it’s based on finding things you can do together, and often it’s based on stuff that initially might start out quite small and be modest in its objectives – but as you win things then you can expand that out and look towards bigger struggles. Often things will be initiated by a small core of activists. And the successful struggles are always the struggles where it breaks out of that and lots of people start getting involved. And it probably gets a little bit chaotic because people are getting sucked into things. 

The biggest struggle of the past decade was part of the austerity struggles, and they tried to impose a new local tax in the form of a charge on water. And the resistance to that took two forms. One form was people simply not paying it which was a mass thing that involved probably seventy percent of the population by the end. When you talk about mass struggles, that definitely was a mass struggle. And then the second thing that people did was they physically resisted the installation of water meters that were necessary to measure how much water people were using in order to charge them accurately. That basically meant the communities mobilizing when the vans arrived to install the meters, doing blockades to prevent that from happening, and then the police would show up in order to force them through. And you would have confrontations that might go on for a month in a particular set of four or five streets. 

It ground the whole process to a halt so the government had to abandon the whole scheme. That was a story of lots and lots and lots of people basically organizing their own streets and housing estates. So when the vans arrived they would come out and resist them on a whole. Particularly, they were backed by the unions, organizing big national marches that were pulling out maybe 30,000, 40,000, 50,000 people. In a country the size of Ireland that’s a very big number.

BMD: So you’ve written quite a bit about anarchism, about politics and history in Ireland. In this context of struggles learning from each other across borders and finding that unity too, I want to step back in history, and wanted to ask if you could expand a little bit about who James Connolly was. For anyone who does not know, Connolly lived in exile in Troy, New York for a while. But, tell us about him and the movement he came out of. And tell us if there is anything important that came out of those struggles for those of us to learn today.

AF: So in the context of the Irish left, James Connolly is kind of everybody’s founding father figure. Everybody sort of claims to come from him. It’s a very interesting story. He was born in Scotland, had served in the British army and then arrived in Dublin as a union organizer. And with Jim Larkin he built a very successful General Workers Union that was very strongly based on direct action. 

They fought a massive battle here in Dublin in 1913 when the bosses tried to break that union by locking everybody out. There was a nine month struggle of resistance to that. In the course of that struggle they formed something called the Irish Citizens Army which some people call the first workers militia in Europe. It was basically formed to defend picket lines against police attacks. And that went on to take part then in the 1916 insurrection in Dublin. He was executed after that so there is this whole history of the war of independence where there’s lots of general strikes. There were seventeen general strikes in the course of two years. There were train strikes that happened which meant that British troops couldn’t be transported around. So there is a whole hidden side for that kind of struggle for Irish independence which had very much to do with the left after Connely and the influence of what was a syndicalist union that he built in terms of its ability to then run these massive labor struggles against the ongoing British military presence at the time. 

As I said, he’s interesting in that almost every political party claims some sort of connection to him. Some of that is a little more dubious than others. But for anarchists I think the key thing is the kind of syndicalist politics. The idea of workers self organizing and direct action was the way to win struggles. That’s probably what is key. Certainly, some of that was coming from his experience in the States and working with the IWW there.

BMD: Right, and in his time in the United States, as you mentioned, he was actively involved with the labor movement and had also assisted with the first factory occupation in the US which was in Schenectady when 3,000 Wobblies, or IWW members, went on strike. So how do we move forward with this discussion we just had, in terms of having a better future, a more equitable future? How to get there? It’s probably difficult to sum up in a few words but what are your thoughts?  

AF: I think the key thing is to try and work out where we have actual power and how that can be implemented. So we know that workers pretty much make everything, I mean everything really, so in that sense the global economy is completely dependent on us producing things for it. And then it’s also therefore the case that we could then take that over and I think the challenge for us is to understand the mechanisms by which we do that today are because I think they’ve changed. It used to be that this was a much more simple thing to understand when production was relatively simple so that generally everyone was working in a factory, you were making something that had an immediate use and you could imagine a situation where you could exchange whatever that was with other workers in other factories or with farmers and all that sort of stuff made sense. 

The globalized economy today where maybe you’re sitting in front of a computer tapping your keyboard; that becomes a little bit harder to imagine. But it’s still the case that on a global level and on a big regional level it’s still that same economy and we are still in the process of producing everything. Food is produced by us, goods are produced by us, services, etc. So to me the answers to how we do it become harder to understand. But there are other ways, I think particularly with computer technology and the ability to track decision making and do resource allocation and things like that it’s probably become easier. But I do think the challenge for people today who are either union activists or left activists or anything else is to try and solve that question, of how we envision going from where we are now to a free society that involves us taking stuff over and running it in our collective interests rather than relying on and electing someone to sort it out for us. Because I don’t think that path is going anywhere.

Brendan Maslauskas Dunn is a member of Black Rose/Rosa Negra and an organizer in Utica, NY. His work has appeared in the Industrial Worker, Works in Progress, Monthly Review and Le Monde Diplomatique. Transcription was done by Christopher Snyder.